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Bethlehem and Divine Providence

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

All the mysteries of Christ's life tell us something about reliance on the Providence of God in our lives. But the event of Christ's birth at Bethlehem is especially revealing. We begin by asking ourselves, what are the lessons that the mystery of Bethlehem should teach us? Among others, Bethlehem teaches us: to believe in Divine Providence; to trust in the Lord's providential wisdom; and with emphasis, to resign ourselves to God's provident care.

Faith in Divine Providence

As we read St. Luke's narrative of what Mary and Joseph were called upon to do, we marvel at their simple faith in the Providence of God. By all merely human standards, going to Bethlehem at that time was not the right thing to do – in fact, it was the wrong thing to do. Bethlehem was far from Nazareth. Joseph had work to do and Mary was expecting. Besides, here was a pagan emperor putting thousands of people to endless trouble. Why? To get a count of his empire. Why count the people? To satisfy his ego and make sure he collected all the taxes possible. Talk about the profane meeting the sacred.

Yet God had His purpose, using the emperor's pride and avarice to accomplish His designs. Whatever else we are called upon to believe, it should be that God's Providence includes people, good people and bad people. Why did God do it? To identify for all times that the Messiah came from the royal house of David and that His Son, who was King of Kings as God, was also a King as man; to verify the prophecies of the Old Law, notably that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem; and of course one of the divine purposes was to teach us.

Revelation tells us that the Providence of God is the eternal plan by which He governs the whole universe towards the fulfillment of His all wise designs. We are to believe that nothing ever just happens. Everything in the world at large and in our world has a purpose. There is no such thing as chance with God, there is no such things as mistakes with God. We make mistakes; we do wrong; we commit error and sin – never God! But God uses our mistakes and errors and even sins to effect His designs.

In His loving wisdom, God has a good reason for everything in our lives: the people we meet; or the people God makes sure we don't meet, the ones we "just missed". No we didn't. God planned it that way. There is a reason for the temperaments and personalities we deal with, that we have been living with. There is a reason why we were born when we were, in this age, in a particular country and city, of just those parents. Our parents didn't chance to meet; we didn't happen to be born. All of that was planned by God.

We are further to believe that Divine Providence is the normal way that God shows us His Will. No book of Scripture is ever so specific; no writing by a master of the spiritual life is so detailed as the circumstances into which God's Providence places us to manifest His will. God is behind every breath of wind. To believe this is to have the Faith.

Trust in God's Providential Wisdom

Faith in Divine Providence is only the beginning. We are also to trust in the Lord's providential wisdom, even as Mary and Joseph trusted in what they were called upon to do. The circumstances in which they found themselves were God's way of telling them what to do. Joseph simply got up, left Nazareth, and went to Bethlehem to register. Mary did not, absolutely speaking, have to come along with Joseph. Since he was the legal head of the family, only his presence in Bethlehem was required. But it was the prudent thing for Mary to go along with Joseph, or accurately, to have Joseph be with her. She is not for nothing called Virgin Most Prudent. Here we have the key to trusting in the wisdom of Providence. It is the prudent thing to do. What is prudent? Prudence is doing what God's providence shows us we should do. We have our plans, projects, and designs. But a large part of trusting in God's Providence is to lay aside our plans in favor of what He wants us to do.

From all the evidence, when the angel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation, this was the last thing she expected. Leave it to God: His Providence will often mean the last thing we expect. When the angel appeared to Joseph again and told him to take Mary, already with child, as his wife, Matthew makes it very plain that Joseph already had other plans. When Mary's days for her to be delivered were approaching, to leave home and go to a strange city was not in either Mary's or Joseph's designs. The secret of living a holy life like that of Mary and Joseph is to trust implicitly that God knows best. Thus our faith is twice tested: once by giving up on what we had decided and once again as we undertake what God tells us we should do, even though we are unprepared. "This is not my plan," we tell the Lord. He tells us, "Yes, I know, but it's mine."

Resignation to God's Providence

The last step at Bethlehem in imitation of the Holy Family is to resign ourselves to God's providential care. His Providence not only places demands on our faith, to believe He has a purpose in everything in our lives even though we don't see the purpose. Divine Providence also places a burden on our generosity. It can evoke some of the hardest sacrifices of our love.

We read in St. Luke's Gospel that when Jesus was born, Mary wrapped Him in "swaddling clothes". I have been using the Vulgate. Here the Latin is revealing. Mary is said to have wrapped Jesus in "pannis", which means torn pieces of cloth, otherwise known as rags. We are further told that she laid Him "in a manger". Manger is a poetic expression for "trough" from which animals are fed. We are finally told that Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room for them in the Inn. It does not really matter why there was no room for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. But this is the way that God provided for His Son's visible entrance into the world. What a lesson, or rather, what a rebuke to us.

God expects a lot of those whom He loves. He requires sacrifices of those who are dearest to Him, and the heaviest sacrifices of those whom He loves the most. He demands a price of all whom He wants to use as He wanted to use these three persons - - Jesus, God in human flesh; Mary, His Mother; and Joseph, His foster father – to bring not just souls, but the whole human race to Himself. In the degree to which we resign ourselves to whatever this Providence expects of us, in that measure will God use us far beyond our natural capacity or wildest dreams. He will use us to cooperate with Him in the Redemption of the world.

Marian Ignatian Catechist Newsletter
Issue No. 2,  A.M.D.G.,  December 1993

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